Posts Tagged 'Piano'

NEW Grotenhuis Music Collection Released!

Are you a Reformed church musician who struggles to find musical resources related to the blue Psalter Hymnal? For the 1912 Psalter, there are accompaniment tracks, choral arrangements, and even entire conferences produced by members of the Protestant Reformed Churches. And an entire section of the publishing house of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Crown and Covenant, is devoted to selling their own psalm-singing resources. But for us in the URCNA, besides the occasional MIDI track that reaches our computers through the internet grapevine, there isn’t much beyond the bare sheet music of the blue Psalter Hymnal.

Except for the work of the late Dale Grotenhuis.

Choir Settings by Dale Grotenhuis

Choir Settings by Dale Grotenhuis

Painfully aware on my own part of this great need for Psalter Hymnal resources, I discovered some of Grotenhuis’ choral settings fairly soon after beginning URC Psalmody. As I listened to his versatile and varied arrangements on Dordt College’s 6-CD set Be Thou Exalted, LORD, I fervently wished I could somehow get my hands on the sheet music. Since most of Grotenhuis’ music was never formally published, however, it seemed a fruitless task.

Just this week, however, a reader sent me a link to a new database in Dordt’s digital collections. After his death, Dale Grotenhuis’s family authorized Dordt to make his extensive collection of unpublished sheet music available on the internet . . . for free! Here’s what the database home page says:

The Grotenhuis Music Collection was deeded to Dordt College by the Grotenhuis Estate in 2013. The physical collection includes over 500 unpublished music scores composed or arranged by Dale over the course of his career and is housed in the Dordt College Archives. Choral and instrumental pieces make up the majority of the collection with the instrumental category being further subdivided into band, brass, and keyboard compositions and arrangements. Most of the scores are undated. The few dates specified range from 1973 to 2002. All scores were scanned in their original state to preserve the primary format of the works.

The Estate assigns a Creative Commons Attribution/Noncommercial/No Derivatives (CCC BY-NC-ND) license to all of the material in the Grotenhuis Music Collection. Individuals who wish to publish materials from the Grotenhuis Music Collection must secure permission from both the Estate and from Dordt College in its capacity as the owner of the physical property.

It would take days, if not weeks, to even scratch the surface of this exhaustive collection, but here’s a tiny cross-section of the wonderful resources it contains:

Whether you’re a pastor, an accompanist, or just a musically-minded member of a Reformed congregation, this collection of Grotenhuis’ works just might become your new standard resource for sheet music related to the blue Psalter Hymnal. I’m thinking especially of small churches which, in the absence of pianists or organists, often need congregational accompaniment from whatever instrumentalists happen to be on hand. With access to a library like this, finding a trumpet transposition or clarinet arrangement of a Psalter Hymnal tune becomes a manageable, maybe even easy, task. Reformed musicians owe the Grotenhuis family a huge thank-you for making such a valuable resource available to the church at large.

As more and more people become acquainted with Dale Grotenhuis’ collection, I’d love to see the development of a topical index or search function to make locating a particular piece or instrumental part more efficient. For now, though, this incredible library of music for Reformed churches is all there, ready to continue its service for God’s kingdom—just as its composer had always intended.

Visit the Grotenhuis Music Collection »

–MRK

Featured Recording: Analyzing Accompaniment

Featured Recording

Even with URC Psalmody’s 187 videos on YouTube and hundreds of other psalm-related videos from other channels, picking a Featured Recording each week can be surprisingly difficult.  Usually I try to pick a recording from which I can make a related point, or at least offer some helpful thoughts for reflection.

The candidates for today’s post included a video I just put up yesterday of my home congregation singing “Be Thou My Helper in the Strife” (Psalter Hymnal 60, from Psalm 35).  I was unconvinced; it’s a six-and-a-half-minute long video, much longer than the average congregational song, and it’s far from perfect.  For my own part, I wasn’t too confident about the way I had played it, or the merits of the recording in general. But I did start to think about some of the challenges and unique aspects of a song like this one, and came to believe it could make for a thought-provoking Featured Recording post after all.

My pastor had chosen this song from Psalm 35 to accompany a sermon on Luke 20:45-21:4—and it was a very appropriate choice, I think.  He also decided to split the psalm setting in half, having the congregation sing the first four verses before the sermon and the last four after it.  I combined the two halves on the recording for continuity, but you can still pick out the splice.

As I mentioned, the challenges inherent in this case were many.  Our second service is slightly smaller than the morning service (which isn’t large either), so the entire congregation usually sits on one side of the sanctuary.  When I’m scheduled to play, I tend to prefer the piano for this smaller group.  This gives me more musical freedom, since I’m still no master of the organ, but it also means I have to work extra hard to musically lead the congregation.  Thankfully the tune of this psalm setting is that of the familiar hymn “He Leadeth Me,” so they were able to hold the melody line without much trouble.

Then there was the interpretation of the psalm itself.  Psalm 35 is one of the most violent imprecatory songs in the entire Psalter, alternating between exultant highs and the darkest of lows.  Reflecting this in my piano playing was incredibly difficult; while I should never dominate the congregation or view the piece as a performance, I try to at least reflect the overall mood of each stanza for their benefit as I play it.  (It doesn’t help that “He Leadeth Me” is a generally uplifting tune in the bright key of D Major!)  To accomplish this I used a few techniques such as melody in octaves, changes in register, or limited harmonization tweaks.

Finally, there was the typical variety of technical obstacles to overcome.  Settling into the right tempo can be challenging, and if anything, I usually tend to speed when I’m playing piano.  The phrasing of this Psalter Hymnal arrangement also threw most of the congregation for a loop; unlike number 463, this setting includes only one fermata, at the end of the second line.   And through it all I had to rein in my urges to improvise and keep one and a half ears on the congregation.

Were my attempts at properly accompanying #60 successful?  Honestly, I’m still not sure.  At the very least I think my amount of musical communication with the congregation was deficient, as evidenced by the fact that I managed to throw them off on nearly every stanza.  I haven’t yet made up my mind whether piano or organ works better for congregational accompaniment, especially for a small group like this.  And I’m not sure what level of musical freedom I should allow myself.

So, although this Featured Recording lacks a thesis or points of application, perhaps it can still serve as a springboard for discussion.  Fellow musicians, how do you accompany your home congregation?  How do you bring out the themes of the songs you play?  What solutions could you offer to the problems I’ve mentioned above?  Your thoughts will doubtless be valuable to me and anyone else eager to learn how best to assist the church in singing praise to its Lord!

–MRK

(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)

Featured Recording: The Depths of Psalm 88

O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.

–Psalm 88:14, 15 (ESV)

Featured Recording

Let’s not kid ourselves: Psalm 88 is shocking.  It is a lament of laments.  Charles Spurgeon said of Psalm 88 that “this sad complaint reads very little like a song, nor can we conceive how it could be called by a name which denotes a song of praise or triumph; yet perhaps it was intentionally so called to show how faith ‘glories in tribulations also.’  Assuredly, if ever there was a song of sorrow and a Psalm of sadness, this is one.”

Lord willing we’ll consider the contents of Psalm 88 when we arrive at it in our progression through the Psalter.  Today, though, I’d like to ask a tough question: How do we sing Psalm 88?  How can a musical arrangement be crafted to adequately reflect the darkness and despair of this text?

The valuable vaults of the World-Wide Web give us a glimpse into historical attempts to set this psalm to music.  The Genevan Psalter of 1562 includes a sufficiently doleful tune in the Dorian mode, though I believe this recording is much too fast.  Of course, Psalm 88 was versified in a host of other historic Psalters, but recordings of the music used there are much more difficult to find.

What of our own Psalter Hymnal?  How does it treat Psalm 88?

About a year ago, a member of a United Reformed Church in Iowa and a friend of my co-author James Oord posted some thoughts on this psalm setting on her blog, Free Indeed.  Tierney lamented, and rightly so, that the version of Psalm 88 in the Psalter Hymnal is (or, at least, is often rendered as) “an atrocity.  How can you possibly sing words written from the depths of a soul so utterly desolate and torn apart, to a tune that belongs at a carnival—and really mean what you’re singing? It’s a musical lie, and borders on making a mockery of the text.”

Along with a few other readers, I commented on this post, and a thoughtful (and, I think, very profitable) discussion followed.  Both of us saw the same problems with this versification of Psalm 88—a weakly paraphrased text set to a jarringly jolly piece of music.  Tierney’s solution was to create a new and beautiful minor tune to be used to the words in the Psalter Hymnal; mine was to play around with varying harmonizations and stylistic approaches to try to redeem the original tune.  Along the way we shared thoughts about some of the notorious issues that plague any set of psalm paraphrases—scriptural accuracy, tune choices, and songbook loyalty, among others.  (If you’ve got a few extra minutes, I’d humbly encourage you to read the comments!)

That’s a rather roundabout way to introduce today’s Featured Recording here on URC Psalmody.  The very same day I commented on Tierney’s post, the Protestant Reformed Psalm Choir uploaded a video to their YouTube channel with a new arrangement of Psalm 88.  They had kept the original tune, IRVING, and they had kept its original harmonies—but it was the most hauntingly appropriate rendition of Psalm 88 I’ve ever heard.  As I re-listen to it now, the power of this recording almost transcends description.

I’d encourage you to give some thought to Psalm 88 and how it ought to be sung.  Does this rendition convince you as fully as it convinced me?  Do you instead prefer Tierney’s alternate tune, or maybe my own rather sloppy arrangement?  Your wisdom, thoughts, and comments are always appreciated.

As we conclude this post, it might be helpful to call attention to Spurgeon’s further words on Psalm 88.  He points to a single but permeating “ray of comfortable light which shines throughout the psalm.”  Whatever the troubles of the psalmist may be, he still addresses his prayer to the God of his salvation.  “The writer has salvation, he is sure of that, and God is the sole author of it.  While a man can see God as his Saviour, it is not altogether midnight with him.  While the living God can be spoken of as the life of our salvation, our hope will not quite expire.”  Indeed, even in the valley of the shadow of death, we can rest assured that the Lord remains our Savior.  It is for that reason, and that reason alone, that the Christian can sing Psalm 88.

–MRK

(Click here for our last Featured Recording, posted three weeks ago)

A Lesson from New Zealand

Over the past week I’ve heard a lot of comments from a variety of people regarding the importance of the accompaniment in worship.  How do pianists and organists plan for worship?  How do they support congregational singing?  What should be played for preludes, offertories, and postludes in order to complement the theme of the service?  Many questions could be raised in relation to such a broad topic.

This leads me to an interesting connection between the URCNA, the Reformed Churches of New Zealand, and the focus of URC Psalmody.  As you may recall from last week, the Reformed Churches of New Zealand (RCNZ) are currently using a provisional psalter-hymnal entitled Sing to the Lord.  From even a cursory glance at the hymnal website, it’s clear that the RCNZ takes the worship of the church very seriously.  This denomination is committed to finding the most musically solid and Biblically accurate psalm settings and hymns available.  One of its most important productions, however, is a 19-page manual on church music (available as a PDF here).  The RCNZ’s songbook committee offers the following comments (which I have edited and Americanized) in their preface:

This handbook grew out of our work as a committee in preparing a new selection of psalms and hymns for our Churches.  We realized that one needs to be wise in introducing people to new things. We all tend to resist change!  Furthermore, as we worked together over the years, we realized that a guide to the art of accompanying congregational singing could be very helpful to the musicians in our Churches.  ‘If it is worth doing, it is worth doing well’ applies to the worship of God more than anything else in the world.  He is worthy only of our best.  Hence we have tried to do two things in this Handbook: (1) to provide a guide to introducing this new psalm selection to our people…[and] (2) to provide a general guide to the accompaniment of congregational singing.…We trust the handbook serves this purpose that we may indeed worship the Lord with beauty and holiness.

This booklet emphasizes the importance of good accompaniment and musical intuition in worship.  In general I would highly recommend the entirety of this document, but for the sake of brevity I’ll quote some of the most notable excerpts.  Near the beginning of the booklet, the committee states:

Singing is a vital part of the worship of the congregation.  The role of the musician is to assist God’s people in singing and meditation as they worship Him. This should enable the congregation to honor, adore, praise and thank Him for all His goodness, shown to them in Christ Jesus.

Musicians are servants, both of the Lord and of the congregation.  In their service their role is not to draw attention to themselves. Rather the musician desires to have the congregation focus on the Lord—this is worship.

As their service is both to the Lord and to the congregation, the musicians ought to strive for a standard of excellence, seeking to give their very best to God and thereby leading the congregation to the best of their ability.  Accompanying is a balance between leading and following.  For an accompanist who assists the congregation with presenting praise and worship to God, there are few more exciting experiences than to lead an enthusiastic group of singers in rousing song.  You can unite and inspire a congregation when you lead them effectively, just as you can unsettle the congregation by being ineffective as you play. It is important, therefore, that as a musician you spend the time to prepare your music with prayer, thought and care.

In a later section on rhythm, the booklet contains the following suggestions:

In our Reformed Churches there are no conductors for the singing, and it helps if you show firm leadership as the accompanist.  The rhythm is the most important tool you have for this.  It means that you set an appropriate and steady tempo with a consistent meter and that you also give clear indications to the congregation when to breathe.

This document has some particularly helpful advice on perfecting accompaniment, whatever the instrument.

Choose the tone color for the music which will lead the song with sensitivity for the message it brings, e.g. a prayer can be played more quietly whereas a song of victory can be played with exuberance.  The tones of the introduction should indicate the mood of the hymn.  It is best to use the same tone color for the introduction as you will be using for the first stanza.

When you select the tone color for songs, ensure that the melody is clear with good articulation.  If you have an instrument which can play the bass notes, ensure that it is balanced at an appropriate volume for the other musical instruments.  A variety of different types of introduction may encourage your congregation to be more reflective of the text of the song they are about to sing.

It is also good to add variation to the tone colors of the various stanzas that are sung.  This will mean that you need to read the text of each stanza and plan your tone colors accordingly when you practice.

The booklet closes by echoing one of its initial statements.

Accompanying is a balance between leading and following.  Accompanists should be aware of what is happening in the service, and they should be familiar with the liturgy.  This calls for a high degree of cooperation between the minister and the musician.  It is advantageous for the musician(s) to have an order of service so as to avoid surprises.

In conclusion we come back to the quote from J. S. Bach at the beginning, ‘All music should be for the glory of God and refreshment of the spirit.’  The role of the musician is to assist God’s people in singing and meditation as they worship Him.  This should enable the congregation to honor, adore, praise and thank Him for all His goodness, shown to them in Christ Jesus.  Our prayer is that you will be able to do so with joy.

Amen!  Perhaps all church musicians would do well to study the suggestions in this booklet and apply them to their own musical technique.  I pray earnestly that God will grant this same level of musical zeal to the congregations of the United Reformed Churches in North America.

–MRK

Instruments in Worship

To start off our discussion line in the “Words” category, how about an informal survey?  This category will contain regular posts intended to stimulate constructive conversation on various topics.  Every once in a while, though, I’d like to use this conversation area to share a little information about the music in our churches, using a group of similarly-themed questions as our base.  For our first topic: What is the role of instrumentalists in your worship services?

While some of our brothers and sisters in fellow Reformed denominations have no instrumental accompaniment in worship, I would venture to assume that piano or organ accompaniment is commonplace in URC churches.  How many organists and pianists are there in your church?  Do you rotate fairly evenly, or is there one primary accompanist while others fill in as necessary?

How often do you accompany the congregation with multiple instruments playing together, such as piano and organ?  Do you have any thoughts or suggestions on this arrangement—problems you have noticed, solutions you have found?

Do other members in your church actively play instruments as well, such as brass, woodwind or strings?  Are these musicians also involved in worship?  How do you incorporate them into the congregational singing or service music?

Since this is our first discussion, I’ll keep the post length to a minimum.  If you can, I would love it if you would take a few moments and share your responses to these prompts.  A little later on, I’ll give my own answers to these questions as they relate to my home church in West Sayville.  I hope to hear from you soon!

Blessings,

–MRK


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